Today we—or, rather, the remaining sane among us—commemorate the anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The official holiday was Monday, disconnected from the actual date of Columbus’s discovery and, as some would now have it, even from the actual event. Today we are called upon to disavow Columbus and all his works and to deny that any good came of his efforts. We are called, instead, to castigate ourselves and celebrate “Indigenous People’s Day” as if, in so doing, we can remove or negate historical sins by obsessing over them and refusing to see the good in the past.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark,” a scientist marries a beautiful young woman who has a birthmark on her cheek. Despite her being a good and loving wife, he finds himself bothered by the mark and devises a procedure to get rid of it. As the young wife undergoes the procedure, the birthmark does indeed begin to fade. Unfortunately, however, as it fades she dies. The lesson is clear—human perfection is unattainable and the effort to achieve it through human will can lead to worsen the circumstances at the root of our imperfection.
It may not seem an exact analogy but this story always comes to mind as I read about efforts to tear down monuments, first of Confederate figures and war dead, now broadening to statues honoring Jefferson, Columbus, and other great but flawed men. If ever there was a slippery slope, this is it, for evidently even Lincoln is being targeted for what are supposed to be his politically incorrect views on race. But history is the product of many interwoven threads—pull one, and you are liable to unravel others, even some that you really need for the strength of the overall fabric.
Here’s another inexact but instructive analogy, from the histories of the two countries that occupy the island of Hispaniola, discovered (to European eyes) by Columbus, and colonized in different waves by both the Spanish and the French. The Spanish colony became the Dominican Republic while the French colony became Haiti.
As they moved toward independence, the two colonies took exactly the opposite routes. The Dominicans looked to their Spanish heritage and preserved what was useful in European culture. The Haitians, on the other hand, more or less following the totalitarian impulse of the French Revolution, destroyed everything that their colonizers had built—the entire infrastructure including roads, bridges, and machinery—and looked to a kind of indigenous identity for their model of liberation. This divergent history is reflected even in the names of the two countries.
The Dominican Republic is the largest economy in the Central American and Caribbean region and has a thriving tourist industry. Haiti is, well, Haiti. It is desperately poor—the perennial object of global charity that never seems to address its multiple problems, and it operates, if one can call it that, with a per capita income perhaps one eighth that of the DR.
In tearing down statues and monuments, rather than seeking to understand the history and culture behind their erection, sifting through the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past, radical activists may gain temporary satisfaction but may also be dismantling the interwoven strands of meaning that support our freedom, prosperity, and national unity. Every culture, including those of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, has blood on its hands. After all, Cain, the first murderer, was also the founder of the first city, and by extension, the first civilization.
You don’t have to be a Southern apologist to say that the Civil War was fought for a complexity of reasons. Slavery amounted to the foremost and final reason, yes, but there was also love of home, a sense of place, a belief in duty, and a fierce independence. Some of these qualities remain part of our cultural infrastructure today and we are foolish to dismiss them or to wish them away. Comparisons of the South to Nazi Germany are inept, inapt, and intellectually irresponsible.
In addition, all the monuments are part of the history of a relatively short and successful civil war. We shouldn’t slight this. Not every country has had this outcome. Some civil wars go on for decades, as in Angola, and sometimes the evil side wins, as in Vietnam, the latter with the help of our New Left. Korea is still divided. In some countries, like present day Yemen, there may not even be a better side. England suffered through nine years of civil wars, and decades more of turmoil before parliamentary rule could be definitively established. And in the process they had to behead a king, always a messy business fraught with unseen consequences. The Northern Irish have had to tolerate outright thugs and murderers sharing power as part of the Good Friday agreement that ended their “Troubles,” and in Russia, the Bolshevik victory in the civil war that followed the October Revolution eventually culminated in forced labor, mass purges, and state-enforced famine. Likewise in China.
The losses were devastating in our civil war, granted, but it was definitively over in four years and our founding principle, that all men are created equal, was left intact. As Lincoln said, it was a great test of self-government and America passed it. There continued to be severe racial problems, to be sure, in both the North and the South, but they had to be squared ultimately against that founding principle. The Civil Rights Revolution of the latter half of the 20th century was inspired by that same principle, the principle that is being overturned by contemporary radicals who are replacing it with identity politics, reverse discrimination, group entitlements, and tribal vengeance.
No country is perfect but some are better than others, and we are decidedly among the better. The activists want to use perfection and the aspirations of our own ideals as weapons to destroy us for our supposedly unfulfilled promise of perfect equality. They have some of the truth, but not enough of it and they do not mean well with the part they do have. Nothing would satisfy them.
The monuments are needed not to symbolize opposing sides but to help us fully understand our collective history. At the southeastern tip of New York City’s Central Park is Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, dominated by a large equestrian statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman. What does someone of several generations worth of Southern heritage think when seeing that statue, which shows Sherman astride his horse being led by what is officially a female figure representing Victory, but looks very much like an angel. Sherman’s devastatingly destructive March to the Sea left desolation and suffering in its wake and it took decades before the South recovered. (Still, as ruthless as Sherman was, he did not deliberately harm civilians, nor amputate the limbs of children as happened in the civil war in Sierra Leone.) But what the monument honors is not the destructiveness of the March to the Sea but its efficacy in ending the war, which then put an end to slavery and reunited the country.
The South didn’t really have a chance; they were indeed a lost cause from the beginning, as we can see in the so far unbanned Gone with the Wind, and yet they seemed ready to fight to the last man. In Ron Maxwell’s marvelous Gettysburg, we witness the folly that was to become Pickett’s Charge in the planning. Robert E. Lee’s subordinates, particularly General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger in the best performance of his career), see it as doomed, yet cannot overrule Lee’s authority as the commanding general. Afterward, when the slaughtered Confederate lambs are being gathered up, many of them young men who had barely begun to live, the surviving troops affectionately greet and cheer Lee (portrayed by the outspoken leftist actor Martin Sheen) as he rides among them. We need to remember Lee’s tenacity and the worship he inspired in order to accept the brutality of the March to the Sea.
The monuments are emblems of the conciliation that Lincoln hoped would mark the postwar period, the comity and compassion that enabled us to survive so terrible a conflict in which “brother fought brother,” as the old saying goes. No country is perfect but some are better than others, and we are decidedly among the better. The activists want to use perfection and the aspirations of our own ideals as weapons to destroy us for our supposedly unfulfilled promise of perfect equality. They have some of the truth, but not enough of it and they do not mean well with the part they do have. Nothing would satisfy them. For the culture to tolerate and even accommodate their frenzied attacks on monuments and memorials is a losers’ game, because all the toppling, defacing, despoiling in the world will not make these provocateurs like our country more or even hate it less.
We should keep alive all the aspects that led to the conflict, that were fought out in it, that were sorted out after it, and all the memorials that help us continue to sort them out today. And likewise with monuments that preserve other aspects of our history. Looking to purge the past is seeking perfection where it cannot be found and to lose the threads of meaning that make sense of the present.